TURNING THE CANVAS AROUND
“Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre” by Jean-Claude Rousseau
by Francisco Algarín Navarro and Carlos Saldaña
TURNING THE CANVAS AROUND
In his work filmed in Super-8, Jean-Claude Rousseau radically took on some of the material characteristics of the format, to impart an ascetic sensuality to the shooting, soundtracking and editing phases of his Kodachrome cartridges. His poetics were not born of intellectual reflection, but of a living and contradictory process, motivated by an encounter with a transformative vision. His first film, which is presented here in a digitized version supervised by the filmmaker, is the very genesis of this process.
Notes on Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre
by Jean-Claude Rousseau *
Elle est retrouvée !
It is better not to know.
What little we discover must remain hidden.
This condition of secrecy is necessary for things to find a place. We don’t know where we are going, in which form there will be a film. Without anything being said, in the greatest of silences, the elements come to life. We can only keep the frame, maintain the orientation, without any apparent reason.
We don’t know it. There is no project, only desire.
In Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre, the reels follow one another like the exposure of a lack, that is to say, like an evocation of desire. No project to fulfil, no script to follow. Each reel remains in its entirety.
Keep the shots as they are, not to look for modifications with the game of montage. Let the elements fall into place on their own. Wait for them to adjust by welcoming the light. Beauty does not appear where we look for it. Its revelation is always surprising.
It is enough to draw a fragment of the circle to reveal the whole circle and to recognise the centre without it being shown. This place is the true motive of the work. We have kept our distance, we can only go around it, open the compass. There is no other way to make it appear than to describe the circumference. The motive is there where the point of the compass pierces. It is this notch, this lack, it is nothing.
The right reels are those that point to the centre by lying on the same line of the circle. They are held there without raccords between them. They are not maintained by their connections, but by a phenomenon of gravitation, by an effect of attraction. They are oriented.
We can only feel the lines, fix our orientation, maintain our gaze, without any pretence of movement.
The illusion would be to look elsewhere, because we are elsewhere.
Maps not to travel, to move, but to locate our immobility. The impossibility of being somewhere else. Distance and displacement as illusion. Moving, disturbing the lines to show more prevents us from seeing.
Show less to give more to see.
Remove, keep only the lines. Only the lines hold the attention until the elements appear. Use the camera as a geometrician’s instrument. Establish landmarks, recognise the positions and perhaps realise where we are. This is the film’s expectation, its aspiration, not its search, its orientation.
Keep the axis, don’t deviate.
It is through the bias that links are established, that raccords are made in cinema, through an inflection that allows confusion. This is how fiction progresses. Raccords create illusion. Do not deceive the void by the oblique.
Always from the front.
Truth of false raccords. Leave things as they are. Avoid links, respect intervals. Flat geometry. It does not serve a story by developing a vanishing line. It has no perspective, it is flat.
The mise-en-scène is always that of a representation, whereas the film must show only what it is, let the marks of its discovery, the reality of its invention appear. It does not represent. t does not seek representation. It is first and foremost without intention, made of found images, accidental encounters, unforeseen correspondences.
There is nothing to say. If there are words, it is to speak in order to say nothing.
The film is discovered by coincidence, by attraction. Without any applicable rules, the solutions are similar. The film resolves itself in the same way. Its necessity is its only story. It leads only to itself.
The frame is the shape of the gaze.
It identifies the different shots and makes them compatible. It is within the limits of the frame that the same orientation captures them.
It is through the frame that the film begins, that is to say, through a correct relationship of lines that fills the eye and captures the attention. We hold on to it, seized by the measure. Through the play of correspondences, through the effect of the lines, the elements are then freed and a transmutation takes place. Art consists in resolving the real. It is this liberation of the elements within the limits of the frame that allows their orientation.
In the right frame the image withdraws.
Beauty is never fictitious. Art is not a representation but a true, evident presence without a justifying motive. Only the elements can be contemplated. Their harmony is visible in Vermeer’s paintings, as in Bresson’s films.
In the frame, time disappears, waiting is only attention. It is enough to be attentive to cross the representation and see, beyond, the stars.
The unapproachable place, the nothingness around which the elements gravitate, is the light. They are here to show the light. Not the things shown by the light, but the light shown by the things. So it is in Vermeer.
In the painter’s work, the light comes from a window through which we never see the landscape. In the film there is a painting that we only see from the back. We don’t know what it shows.
We can only see the cross of the stretcher bars.
The film ends with this reflection. The window is identified with the work of art, the place where light passes through. Crossing the limit to reach the light. Passing through the frame as we would pass through the window. This is the film’s desire, its decoy, its fiction. Finally becoming the figure of the painting. To be in the eternity of the frame. To disappear into it.
Through the window, we don’t know what the landscape is. A street, a canal, the view of Delft, the harbour perhaps. We are in the interior, in daylight. On the wall, the maps are bigger than the pictures, and yet we don’t know where we are. The woman is at the window. She is standing, reading a letter. She no longer knows what the landscape is, so staring at the letter. It could be any landscape, any point on the map.
In Rome, in Venice, in New York I have placed my camera to find the focus, to locate myself, to finally recognise this very place where we are.
Eternity has its icons.
It is visible.
* Jean-Claude Rousseau, Paris and New York, winter 1988.
Presentation text of Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre
at New York University, 12 February 1988.
Published in Revista Lumière (French and Spanish version) as part of the JEAN-CLAUDE ROUSSEAU SPECIAL: elumiere.net.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre
1983-84, 48’, super-8 a DCP 2K
Français + (CC) Italiano, English, Español subtitles
«It is hard to see the landscape through the window. A street, a canal, the view of Delft, the port maybe. We are indoors bathed in daylight. On the wall, the maps are bigger than the paintings, however we do not know where we are. The woman is by the window. She is standing reading a letter. She has forgotten what the landscape is about after staring at the letter for too long. It could be any landscape, any pinpoint on the map. Outside. It is hard to see the landscape through the window. A street, a canal, the view of Delft, the port maybe. We are indoors…»
This new 2K digital version of Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre was made at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola (EQZE) from the original Super 8 copy and is part of a research project developed entirely by a group of students and teachers at the center.
«Saturday, December 14th, 1985. Malik, 14h 4′. In cinema, there are two types of filmmakers: those who film the subject through a window and those who film the window. The former ends up making commercial, «classical» cinema: the subject is filmed as an object. A distance is established with this object in order to capture it better and transform it into a subject. The object never loses its prerogatives. Then, there are other filmmakers: those who film the window, i.e. the transparent screen at the base of the window, a space in which the filmmaker inscribes his subject.
In this case, the process is reversed: subject -> object. The subject becomes object; the film is subject. Thus, the object is the film. In this category of filmmakers, we find experimental filmmakers. For example, Lemaître: he worked on his films in (within) the window. As far as I am concerned, I try to create a link between these two concepts of cinema: the classical and the avant-garde.
I go from the inside to the outside. I bring things back to the window. Subject and object merge into a single unit: the film.
The transgression (of space. The filmmaker who makes the film participate in his own force, his own impulse) of space. The passage through the window dynamizes this passage and transforms it into the engine of the film. Would the transgression be the film? Its raison d’être, its explanation?
There are people who know how to stay on the edge of the window, of the frame: Oliveira, Bresson. This is what our friend J.-C. Rousseau said: don’t go beyond the frame. And even so, what we see is the subject of the frame. It’s a question of geometry, of distance».
– Teo Hernandez
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre is a film shot entirely in a single space: an unfurnished room in a Parisian flat. We can call this space the atelier. But to conceive it as an atelier is not so much connotative evidence (motivated by the presence of the painting, of a clipboard, of the person we assume is a painter or an artist) as it is to affirm the changing, iridescent nature of this space. There is no claim to determine the reference points of the atelier space. We will never possess or be able to reconstruct the complete and coherent vision of its spatial dimensions and proportions. It is not a question of representing an atelier as a narrative place in which an artist/character works, but rather of «putting the atelier in motion», of making the film itself a laboratory, as a place of fabrication or constitution of new spaces, of images: the space will arise from the (spatial) dispositions and from the (temporal) interactions that are established at each moment between the elements and the series in which they are inscribed, from a fluctuation of the space with respect to them, giving life to actualised or only intuited virtualities. A particular relationship between the elements can transform a Parisian flat into a 16th-century room, the site of a suicide or the International Space Station. «A question of geometry, of distance».
The film acts in such a way that space does not appear as something given, or as a whole to be assembled from a constructivist point of view. Jean-Claude Rousseau’s geometry does not establish its axes, planes and references in order to describe space or a given objectivity, but in order to allow the circulation and transformation of a ductile, independent element, to activate the relations between elements, but also to constitute series and make possible the reciprocal crossing of two or more series; in other words, to open up space.
The organisation and opening up of space is not the cause, but rather the result (or resultant) of the experience’s organisation. Working with experience means working with time. Firstly, the time of production. And visual experience consists of experiencing space in order to construct it. Experience covers all the processes that the film goes through, it is given as the most positive value of all, as any matter of principle can be transformed into it.
The shots of space are not portions, they are images that allow the filmmaker to dispose of the idea of shaping space. It is the organisation of the experience and not of the atelier space that makes possible the transformation of the film’s elements, as well as their independence.
LIST OF ATELIER ELEMENTS
A painting seen from behind.
A window from which one can see a street, the building in front, a tree at different times of the year.
A dressing gown.
A mirror which is also a tray.
A light installation with a spotlight.
A letter on which you read certain words («Rome», «lack», «goodbye», etc.).
A letter which is readable and which is read, about the possibility of jumping (which could be confused with the previous letter, as if they were one and the same).
A postcard of a Greek port.
A green tortoiseshell portfolio.
Three reproductions of paintings by Vermeer («Woman with a Pearl Necklace», «The Lacemaker», «Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window»).
Several sheets of white paper.
A Bauer D2M Super 8 camera.
A shutter release.
One empty reel.
Several envelopes of Kodak cartridges with annotations written in pencil, stacked in four piles or displayed individually.
An Emo E 501 film viewer.
Cinecol film glue.
A pair of scissors.
A book of correspondences by Cézanne.
A series of repeated street sounds.
Three fragments of Mozart quartets (two of them are heard at the same time, in cacophony, and the other is preceded by a radio voice-over).
The reading of a text about what is or could be seen through a window.
Piano notes typed repeatedly.
A radio broadcast of a lighting.
A prolonged beep.
The body of the painter/filmmaker.
* * *
In the first reel of the film [1/1], we see the painting with its back to us and a spot of light that runs across the surface of the stretcher and overflows onto the wall until it disappears from the frame, in different shots that animate its movement in fixed, discrete stages (this is not a time-lapse). From this succession, a hypothesis could be established as to what the film will show: the passing of the hours and days in the studio; the different nuances in the experience of the place from one moment to another, from one time of day to another; the difference between one day and the previous one, between the different successive experiences observed over a period of time in the same space. Although the film was shot in the same room and at different times of the day and year, there is no interest in constructing an observational lyric or a spatio-temporal description of the atelier. The discrete movements of the spot of light on the painting reflect the way in which certain images can burst into others, the way in which an object or a frame can be shown for a certain period of time and then be removed. As the film progresses, we understand retrospectively that the substance of this reel does not come from the frame as an index of the «atelier», nor from the successive movements of the reflection of the window as a sign of the «passing of the hours», but from the frame and the window as elements. Elements that, if installed in time (first of all, as we shall see, in the time of a Super 8 reel: two minutes and thirty seconds), can cross, compose and separate themselves.
Jean-Claude Rousseau tells that he once visited Robert Bresson, who asked him what he was working on. Rousseau replied that he was shooting a film called Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre. When asked to talk about it, Rousseau explained that in the film there was a painting seen from the back, so that we only see the frame stretcher, and that in front of it there was a window. You would see the painting and, in an absolute, one hundred and 80-degree reverse shot, you would see the window. Bresson replied, with humour: «that’s impossible!».
Film strip extracted from a discarded reel
This being impossible in Bresson’s system, it is also impossible in Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre. CWe understand that the conversation with Bresson must have taken place at an early stage of the film’s production, and that one of Jean-Claude Rousseau’s driving ideas at that stage may have been the realisation of this shot/reverse shot, the successive contrast of these two elements. A directive that would, however, naturally prove to be impossible. Understanding what could not be part of the film helps us to understand what is part of it and, consequently, what the film itself is. The strip of frames from a reel not included in the film shows just such a shot/reverse shot, joining the two images with a glue splice. According to the law that the film outlines for itself, the shots of the painting and the window were to remain separate, distinct, in units of the same duration (that of the Super 8 cartridge). If the film had accepted splicing as a valid strategy, the film shooting could be applied to the same scene or angle, producing different shots (based, for example, on variations in light) and then selecting the best one and inserting it into a chain of images. This rejected splicing is the trace of a strategy that the film tried but did not adopt. It is the trace of a phase in the filmmaker’s experience.
Frames extracted from a discarded reel
Another discarded reel shows us that the presence or not of montage is something that transcends the fact that the filmmaker assembled the different shots with splices: despite the respect for the unity of the reel in its filming, the montage is established here from the different angles and the different actions that are linked in the two minutes thirty. The raccord does not require splicing. It is enough for the reel to have been filmed following the logic of a cause-effect succession, or of a constructive assembly of different shots of the space, for the raccord to be fully established. This reel could belong to a phase of filming subsequent to that of the splicing. At a certain point, Rousseau realised that the combination of different views of the studio on the same reel would have prevented its inscription in the metrics of the film. The same was true of the shot/reverse shot of painting and window, which would have broken a principle of distance required for the discernment of a certain order and rhythm. This rhythmic necessity can also be seen as the filmmaker’s radical abandonment of raccord.
When filming with the shot in mind, in this sense of «attempt» that we have given it, the different images filmed from different angles are placed in front of the spectator’s eye, with the aim of creating a volume. As a test, it is the repetition of an action, which seeks to obtain, by means of variations, what may be suitable for the image that will end up being selected for the film. The choice, under this system, lies not only in which shot to choose from among those filmed, but also, correlatively, in which reel or chain of images that shot will be inserted.
The filmmaking process goes through a series of contradictory experiences. In the final film, the previous stages of the process are not discarded, but, on the basis of the absence of a project, the filmmaker prolongs the attempt in the idea of shot, while at the same time he admits that the film proposes a series of laws. These two operations give rise to an opposite result, but are nevertheless self-balancing in their interaction. This avoids the possibility that at some point the film could have consisted of a succession of reels without order.
The shot will become other modalities of image and another possible and non-exclusive conception of what the frame can imply. It is the passage of time and the overcoming of the different phases that allows multiplicity, generating openings in space and turning the image into a phase or a whole, liberated from its subordinate condition of part. At a certain point, the spectator becomes aware that the film must not maintain a uniformity, but a plurality in which the different traces of a series of processes can coexist, traces that account for the variability or the possibilities of infraction of the law that guides the film. In the second reel [1/2], for example, not all the frames have the same status that they have in the last reel [4/3], in which the different images do not even share the same condition. In the same way, from the beginning of the film and throughout it, fixed and long shots converge with very brief short shots, largely determined by movement.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84) 1/2
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84) 1/4
Rather than distinguishing between categories of images or subjects, the film suggests the manifestation of a process that, on the other hand, will never follow a binary logic (nothing in the film can be read as a mistake or a success: the law of the film should explain all its phenomena). In this sense, when compared to the first one [1/1] the second reel [1/2], is a good example of the different forms of filming that are present in the film. Visually centered around the window and the leafless tree, we find shots at different distances, driven by a throbbing movement around the window, whose re-shots (due to the different positioning of the tripod or lens) follow each other in a particular synchronicity with a range of street noises. The reference for the compositional center is sometimes provided by the opposite building’s three windows, and sometimes – for example – by the tree. Just as we do not find a descriptive organization of space, neither do we find a descriptive construction of time (the passing of seasons), which, as an illusion, would only be one of the many fictions the film would undertake.
Aware of this, the filmmaker must move from understanding the finished film as a filmic continuum that would take shape from a montage of footage from different cartridges, to shooting and conceiving the reel as a unit. There is no longer neutrality – either of the shot or the filmed image – that allows them to gradually find their place in the montage. From the spliced views that follow one another without any kind of temporal tension, Rousseau transforms the filming of each cartridge into an indivisible extension. This is what differentiates him and distances him from the procedure of the «montage in camera», which does not involve the reel as a unit of measurement or the action of weaving together the beginning and the end of the cartridge itself. The unit here is no longer the image, but the entire reel. What is now considered for selection is the entire reel, not just a single shot. The reel is a unit to accept or reject, in its entirety, what could previously only be assimilated for compositional purposes is transformed into a measurement unit of the shots themselves.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84) 3/3
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84) 3/4
In addition to the changes that each element may undergo individually over the course of the film, they may also transform each other through their interaction. The way in which said elements vary with respect to one another also testifies to the transformative power of the image with respect to denotative reality, filmed in such a way that it can be seen as other. The vision brackets the objective content of the elements, which must not only be understood as objects, but also as matter. Matter, instead of establishing a difference or hierarchy between categories, forms, or places, proposes an almost synaesthetic degree of perception. Thus, it is not only about the transformation produced by the effect of a trompe l’oeil – such as the confusion between different proportions or sizes – but also about the ways in which one action can be perceived as another. In the third and fourth reels of the third pile [3/3, 3/4], for example, we see the figure of what could be an artist, contemplating the painting that we see from behind. In the first case, he walks from side to side, switching from observing the painting to looking at the window, followed by slight repositions that do not involve a change of position of the tripod. He walks on the way out and runs on the way back. In the second case, he contemplates the painting while standing or sitting in a chair, walking in circles, taking off his robe. In both cases, the sound material – a fantasy world of bells, piano notes, rounds of applause, a radio recording that blends with two fragments of Mozart’s quartets – can make us view these actions as other actions: forgetting the painting, as if there were a glass screen, we perceive the walking from one side of the room to the other as a dance, a kind of excitement that is very similar to the vision of the tree full of leaves and flowers [1/4] after the sight of the bare autumn branches two reels earlier [1/2]. The piece of music seems to break in as if participating in the exaltation of spring.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84) 3/5
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 3/6
The reels following these, in which the filmmaker contemplates the painting are, in fact, the ones in which we most perceive the atelier as transformed (which leads us to think of this third pile of six reels as a structure of four plus two). In the first reel of this pair [3/5], in which we hear the broadcast of a moon landing, there is not only a transformation of elements through the relationship between what is seen and heard at the same time and in the same reel – this other dance of different light sources turning on and off, the possibility of imagining the iridescence or «solar tilt» in a light bulb or reflector, without them ever being confused with the sun itself – but rather the relationship between matters can generate transformations between elements placed in different leaders. Thus, in the last reel of this third pile [3/6], we see the same figure opening and closing the windswept sashes of the window, already closed in the middle of the night, with practical actions that might even seem mechanical, if viewed separately. However, we understand the abandonment of any attempt at likelihood in the face of a possible reality of the space-time of the atelier – which has acquired, especially because of the lighting, an almost infernal aspect, or of a purgatory – but also that it was the sound of the previous reel, the one of the moon landing, which created a new world or environment in this other reel. Therefore, a sound can not only touch an image, the image we are seeing in that instant, but in this encounter, it could also reach previous images or, as in this case, subsequent ones, through its participation in this dynamic of elements. Therefore, without the sound of the preceding reel, perhaps nothing would invite us to think of the opening and closing movements of the window as fiction, and perhaps we would have no reason to imagine a spaceship in place of the studio, in that immensely white wall and in those four rectangles of opposing darkness.
Reels such as the moon landing one, which are part of a series such as this, can also intersect with the orbit of others – for example, the series relating to the instruments of cinema. In Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre, elements acquire their meaning only when they are included in a series. The series is always limited (it is made of specific elements), but it is always open, and the most heterogeneous matters can join it. The series can cross, repel, determine, influence each other. The effect of these crossings can be inscribed in a series in progress or yet to come. The series should not be understood as something that is predetermined, but is always being composed by the hermeneut/viewer. The fictions that these series cross, like the nature of the elements they put forward, are unstable and ephemeral by nature. Thus, there is not just one fiction, but a series of fictions, fictions of laws, laws that are guessed through the composition of series. The law, the structural construction of the film, is but one fiction among others.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 4/0
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 4/1
The image that precedes the title of the fourth pile, showing the farthest view of the window and the table on which the piles, the moviola and the ladder stand, is the one in which, out of the fiction of the piles and reels, we hear the words: «Imagine. This letter would appear in the film. You would see it on the table, next to the moviola…», and then, within this fiction [4/1a , 4/1b], read these same words, along with others – «Why wait? Why not jump?» -, all apparently coming from the letter that inaugurates the fiction of defenestration. This fiction thus passes through a process whose catalyst is not essentially narrative, but material. The starting point is – as we have seen – the encounter between a series of images and sounds – between what is heard but not read, between what is read but not heard -, which, in turn, are intertwined with others – like the falling staircase at the beginning of the film -, forming just as many different series, which in addition are placed, now, not only in different reels, but also in different piles (each pile is in itself a small fiction), and interact within or without them, from different fictions. If there is anything we have understood in this succession of sound stages, it is the fact that the sound that has been processed – sometimes even edited – at a later stage than the image only adds to its richness, and, on the other hand, that meaning never circulates in one direction only, and can affect both preceding images, reels, or piles, and those yet to come.
The fiction of the framework – the frame is an element that only appears in the first reel [1/1], in the penultimate [4/2] and in the first four reels of the third pile – is, for example, just another fiction. It may occupy more or less ground and subsume more or less elements and matter, for it also assumes, like the window, a preparation of what is yet to come. But, at the same time, it also turns out to be a fiction that is unknown both to the director and to the viewer while making/viewing the film. Although it appears to be entirely oriented towards the last reel, the filmmaker will understand it at some point during the process, while the viewer will only become aware of it at the end of the film.
The aspiration to replicate Vermeer’s painting in Super 8 is intertwined with the story of the first four reels of the third pile, in which the painting is in the foreground, although due to a flattening process, it can still be seen from behind, somewhat parallel to the lines of the atelier itself – virtually flat images that will gradually acquire volume. The artist repeatedly moves the picture, as if he were searching for the right position. When framed for the first time, the artist opens a portfolio [2/2]; the second time, he puts some sheets of paper in the same portfolio [2/3a , 2/3b]. In the third pile, he walks from the painting to the window (absence of connection), runs back, hesitates, goes around in circles. What if all these movements had to do with the contemplation of a work (which could possibly be his), and also with a fiction that allows one to imagine that this painting is not, of course, a Vermeer painting, but a painting that one can enter by dint of walking back and forth, repeating the path from the painting to the window, gaining momentum (running)? This being the case, the painting (as an agitating agent) could not participate in this dance, since it is what triggers the suggestion. In all the reels of the third pile, the filmmaker literally steps out of the (cinematic) picture to enter and occupy the place of the (pictorial) picture.
Another possible ground could then be prepared, that of usurpation (the other two Vermeer reproductions as false clues or erratic deviations, perhaps on the same level as the appearance of Cézanne’s book [1/3]). In the second reel of the last pile [4/2], a huge white sheet of paper resting on the back of the painting gives us a hint that something that has to do with its front is about to take shape. But if, at any point, the face of the painting was to be shown, the element would be the image and no longer the painting. Here, it is not so much a question of showing the painting as of showing a picture seen only from behind, a condition of possibility and symbol of the film itself. Fiction is built not only from what is seen, but also from what is not seen (the face of the painting). Therefore, the film is not oriented towards a plane of fiction in which cinema is the one absorbing its creator, and the latter is trapped within his film by disappearing from the frame (a matter of vampirism), but rather towards an embodiment – which is not representation but substitution or, rather, transfiguration, whereby the filmmaker becomes the figure of the painting (we move from a body that the film records, that is inscribed in the film, to a painted body, that occupies the interior of a painting).
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 4/3
Frame extracted from a discarded reel
Rather than a mise-en-scene, what the film reveals are the signs of its discovery; the only reality is that of its invention. In the idea of thinking of the film in terms of volume, the last reel [4/3] is considered the sum of a series of attempts at fiction, and not so much of «mistakes» (the various shots which, by way of rehearsal, put us in the right position in front of each object), to which a final image is added, in which everything remains fixed (a question of geometry). The mutations to which, for example, the window has been subjected in the different frontal views, are different from the ones that cause the posture of the body – or the angle chosen, for example, in another test reel – to determine the place of the last reel. The discovery of said place consists in nothing more than the choice of a position, either of the camera or of the figure, and the appropriate arrangement of the elements. It is the dialectic of processes that will bring the film to its final image. The problem to solve never derives from evidence or a given key, but from the feeling of facing an unknown, the resolution of a variable. The composition of elements involved the execution of a series of operations.
Throughout the film, correspondences can be made between the black rectangle on the wall and the white sheets of paper on the floor, or the shape created by the window’s reflection on the painting. The black rectangle would function as a possible negative – a recurring idea throughout the film – of the dark window against the white walls, of the white sheets of paper against the dark folder, or the way artificial light hits the wall in relation to the way natural light hits the facade, across the street, as if artificial light could not go beyond the (natural) limit of the window. But it is the second pile of the film, above all, that advances significantly on the basis of the variables’ geometric progression. When the filmmaker films himself in front of the mirror [2/3a , 2/3b], the pure correspondence between the lines and the frames stays in the foreground: the window, the map, the sashes, the walls and the floor, the opposite windows, the binder, the mirror, the door reflected in the mirror.
In the first reel [1/1], the window seems to be the main controlling agent, because of the reflections it casts on the back of the picture. In the second [1/2], energy comes out of or passes through the window, catalyzing everything. In the second pile, the window is the subject of the animation, but the consecutive variations of light – both natural and electric – imposed in a certain way by cinema, end up replacing it. If there is a driving element in this pile, it is undoubtedly the camera, present in the first three reels – rapid pans, re-frames – and whose incorporation into the film culminates in the mirror reel, in which it becomes visible. In the first of these reels [2/1a , 2/1b], the movements are more abrupt – the pace is very different from the acceleration that occurs, for example, in the second reel of the first pile, which seemed determined by the elements – the filmmaker even covers the lens with his hand. In the second one [2/2], the cuts are determined by the action of turning the different lights on and off, as the camera is, once again, the driving element.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 1/3, 3/5, 2/3
The differences between the lighting and the colors of each surface (lit with natural or artificial light, in half-light, reflective or non-reflective), each variation and adaptation, form of animation of the elements, fiction of the attempt, make one think of reels like the one of the staircase seen as a still life [1/3], or the one of the moon landing [3/5], which reveals the sources of the variegated light spectrum that are present in the three reels. It is another possible encounter between separate reels – in which, moreover, cinema is always present: the reel resting on the ladder like a butterfly, the reflectors and, of course, the camera reflected in the mirror (the visibility of the filmmaker’s tools in the film is unquestionably greater than the ones of the painter). The fact that we see the filmmaker within the frame, that his size has somehow been reduced compared to the next reel, also suggests a foreshadowing of the attempt to cross the frame.
The reel of variations in front of the mirror [2/3a , 2/3b] and the reel of titles [4/1a , 4/1b] are good examples of how one element (the mirror) will be transfigured and, at the same time, can assume different functions. Unlike the reel mentioned above, or that other reel in which we see it leaning against the painting, the mirror here performs a trompe l’oeil. Trompe l’oeil which can also be understood in a broader sense than the simple illusion of literally seeing something that is not actually there (e.g. a reflection, the discovery of the mirror). Of course, we would expect to find the opening credits at the beginning of the film, and not a map that might be its emblem instead – not so much because of the place marked, «Le Blanc», but because of the convergence of all the roads into one center. A viewer unfamiliar with the title of the film might think, until the end credits, that the film is titled «Le Blanc». However, the verisimilitude is suspended with the shock that comes from understanding that, unlike other images located outside the fiction of the piles, those of the table and the piles, the credits are in a reel, that is, within that fiction. The signs «First Pile», «Second Pile», «Third Pile», and «Fourth Pile» trigger their respective implications, while the titles do not seem to be merely labels, but possess the status of images that, moreover, go with a second fiction. The letter about defenestration appears below in this same reel, which seems to break and highlight the fiction of the film as it intersects with the fiction of defenestration – when one of the sheets of the letter falls, we can read «Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre». A farewell letter suddenly recalls a production note. Within the image outside the fiction of the piles is the internal sound of the fiction of the letter. And in its internal image, one encounters the title of the film.
If we look at the second pile of film as a progression, first we find the exploration of the panoramic axis of the tripod in it [2/1a , 2/1b], then the person operating an unseen camera [2/2], then the camera itself reflected in the mirror [2/3a , 2/3b] and, in the fourth reel, a kind of strange qualitative leap in the same direction: the film itself, the material of which the film is made of [2/4a , 2/4b]. The envelopes containing the Kodak cartridges refer directly to earlier reels through film. If the leap from previous reels seems strange, it is due to, among other things, a matter of size. In this reel, in addition to the envelopes, we find other elements, such as the handwritten letter with the words «Rome», «lack» or «goodbye», the postcard of a Greek port, and the reproduction of the painting «Woman reading a letter in front of the window» by Vermeer. They are all filmed in static close-ups, and both the letter and the postcard are framed in such a way as to operate a disconnection. Disconnection with respect to the nature of the object – the letter, already seen before, a new and expandable possible fiction, can be confused with another one; and nothing indicates that the postcard is a postcard, much less a postcard of a port, a happy encounter with the landscape we don’t know by looking at it from the window: «A road, a canal, the view of Delft, maybe the port» -, and because of the way these two objects have been detached from a context – for example spatial, that of the studio environment.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 2/4
Frame extracted from a discarded reel
As is the case with the map at the beginning of the film, or with the postcard – not with the letter, which we saw resting on the ladder – the reproduction of Vermeer’s painting was filmed by isolating portions of the painting, precisely to avoid making it clear that it is a reproduction, as was the case in one of the discarded reels. Of course, it may seem improbable that the filmmaker left the atelier to go and film the painting, but, on the one hand, the imagination of an outside of the atelier is a condition that has become possible, at least for a moment; on the other hand, on a plastic level, it is the only element in which there is not the slightest reference to the space in which it is located, and no frame (in the case of the postcard, it is framed similarly to the letter, without occupying the entire surface of the screen). We are, quite literally, inside the picture.
It is a pure motionless extension of time, an experience that refers back to the woman named in the text of the second stack, who no longer knows what the landscape is, since she is so absorbed in reading the letter. And, unlike the letter (writing), or the postcard (photography), the envelopes (annotation), as well as the map when seen at the beginning of the film («Le Blanc»), which will instead have a later frame of reference, there is nothing retrospective in the reproduction of the painting, no kind of anterior time.
The envelopes, on the other hand, are there to be read. In one image, one of them is filmed so closely (and with a color saturation that makes it look odd compared to the other envelopes) that for a moment it might be mistaken for any of the letters or viewed as an additional letter. With the exception of this example and some angled shots, in the case of the envelopes, the object is seen in its entirety. When seen on the table, stacked, one could not read anything on them.
Now that they are shown individually, in the foreground, highlighted, the annotations above indicate to us on the one hand that this is not a new element, and on the other, that those descriptions testify to the process of making the film as an object and find correspondence in the images we will see later, in which we find them paired, spliced. Knowing the fiction on this same process, as well as the known construction of fiction elaborated subsequently, the lines that we read on the envelopes could be viewed as the notes of a script of what is going to be filmed – we are not describing events, but images -, something that the spectator would not interpret at that moment.
If you think about the mismatch between the number of envelopes we see in each pile and the structure of the film, you can see this reel as the first in which two worlds collide, the inside and outside of the fiction of the piles. After the view of the penciled envelope, the splices combine these shots with some shots of the window, covered by a large white sheet. Later on, another junta connects the image of the windows covered by the sheet with a dark view of the atelier that comes from another reel, in which one can recognize the map and the painting. This gives us an insight into the functional foundation of the piles. Compared to montage, piling is the most economical way to relate to materials.
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 2/4
Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). 2/4
This reel does not just make us understand the stage of the process in which the filmmaker may find himself and the way in which the different stages relate to each other; it also shows that it is possible to consider this moment as the infraction of the law that we thought to be most established in the whole process, the law of the absence of editing within a reel, that of the unity of the reel. In this cartridge, the longest in the film, the various splices also unbalance its life. The construction of the reel no longer takes into account the duration predicted by the entirety of the cartridge.
Thus, the passage from the image of the annotated envelopes to that of the covered window can be seen as a connection; a connection that is not so much spatial as it is semantic, a connection of meaning. In full revocation of likelihood, the viewer must go through the same process as the filmmaker. Not being part of the overall structure of the film, these segments signal this structure better than any other. They appear at every turn, like a sign. The cut with which we go from the written words on the envelopes to the images we see hereafter brings together the two types of editing that are in the test reels rejected by the film.
The final reel [4/3] presents the fiction of a convergence of elements: the window, the map, the letter, the figure. However, many of the elements we have seen along the film’s path do not appear here; we do not know what has become of them. It is as if they didn’t make it to «white». And, in fact, the fiction of the defenestration has not come together completely. The fictions do not overlap each other. None of the fictions can erase the earlier ones. The fictions latch onto the previous ones or open up to new fictions. The fact that there may be elements in one fiction that exclude another is also part of the fiction itself.
It’s worth mentioning that the film doesn’t end with a cut to black, but with a bright yellow leader, as you hear the sound of the window opening and closing. The leaders form part of the film’s reality to a greater extent than the piles. The reels are also part of this same reality, as they encompass things, but they also participate in a fiction. They are outside the law of a film that is ultimately materially on one reel, the projection reel, the image of the film.
Original Super 8 reversible film of Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983-84). Photography by Jean-Claude Rousseau
©️all images: courtesy of Jean-Claude Rousseau.